Pennsylvania/New York / United Kingdom, History Illustration, Figure and Mural Painting

Born in 1852, the name of Edwin Austin Abbey is related to both contemporary American Art Nouveau and the Symbolist movement. He was on staff at “Harpers” magazine by the time he was 19, and, despite success, recognition and raises, he left to pursue a free-lance career at the age of 22. He returned to Harpers in 1876, at the ripe old age of 24, a wily veteran at the princely sum of $50 a week (more than three times his 1871 initial salary). 1876 was also the American Centennial and one of the many celebratory events was the Centennial Exhibition which brought a wide selection of European paintings to Philadelphia. Abbey was inspired by the English contingent: Leighton, Watt, Boughton, and others. Already a proponent of drawing from life, he was further inspired by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. This led to a journey to England in 1878 in the cause of accuracy in his drawings for Herrick’s Poems. He remained there for most of his life.

His pen work, though always excellent, took on a new dimension. The sketching “rambles” he experienced in England with Alfred Parsons and George Boughton reinforced his belief in the value of drawing from the source. His ink drawings were still being engraved on wood, so some of the spontaneity is lost. Like Daniel Vierge, Abbey was quick to see the advantage of “process” reproduction of his pen drawings (“process” being any of several photographic processes that eliminated the engraver’s reinterpretation).

While in England he produced illustrations for many Harpers serials including “She Stoops to Conquer” (collected as a sumptuous book in 1887), “Old Songs” (right, above), and “Judith Shakespeare” (the first two were also published in book form with Abbey’s illustrations). While in Europe, he met and was inspired by the great French and English artists of the day, especially John Singer Sargent. Abbey often lived at his studio in Broadway, and they painted together often. He was also friends with Alma-Tadema, DuMaurier, Whistler, and others. And though he was painting throughout, he still was using the pen as his primary artistic tool. This prowess with the pen led Harpers to assign him a series of illustrations for Shakespeare’s comedies in 1887.

After a short trip back to New York in 1889, he immediately returned to England, where the lure of authentic costumes could not be denied. On the trip, he convinced himself that his future should be in oil painting. The Shakespeare illustrations, which would continue until 1909, were executed in many media: pen, oil, watercolor and pencil. These were some of his first published oil paintings and his European experience continued to pay dividends. He also traveled to Italy for more research.

In 1890 he received the commission for the Holy Grail murals at the Boston Public Library. The first half were completed and installed in 1895, the remainder in 1901. That year Abbey was elected President of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.

Always a popular artist, in 1902, he illustrated an edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”. (Goldsmith also wrote “She Stoops to Conquer”, one of his earliest successes).

That year, Abbey also accepted his second great mural commission: the new state capitol at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The images for these murals show him working from the nude model and the resultant figure studies, like “Men at an Anvil” , leave absolutely no doubt as to his prowess and talent. It’s just an oil sketch, circa 1904-08, but the intensity and strength is amazing.

Abbey died in London in 1911 before completing the murals. They were finished by J.S. Sargent. A most excellent biography by E.V. Lucas, with two hundred black and white, mostly photogravure, illustrations, was published in 1921 titled: “Life and Work of Edwin Austin Abbey, R.A”. It is highly recommended. A limited edition with an original Abbey drawing exists.

For more information about Edwin Abbey and to see samples of his work visit the Carnegie Museum of Art website at www.cmoa.org/searchcollections/details.aspx?item=1000074.

Source: Matthew Baigell, “Dictionary of American Art”

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